Hong Kong British National Overseas visa officially introduced into UK immigration law by Charlotte Rubin

On 1 July 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to introduce a path to citizenship for Hong Kong British Nationals (Overseas) (BN(O)) wanting to emigrate to the UK. This proposal came after China passed its controversial national security law in June 2020, granting the Chinese government sweeping powers to crack down on opposition and dissent by people in Hong Kong and by Hong Kongers abroad. The UK government considers these laws a failure in China’s behalf to live up to its international obligations with respect to Hong Kong under the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

BN(O) status is a form of British nationality created for people from Hong Kong when the territory was controlled by the UK. During British rule, Hong Kong residents were categorised as British Dependant Territory Citizens (BDTC). In the years leading up to the handover to China, the Hong Kong Act 1985 and the Hong Kong (British Nationality) Order 1986 were enacted, allowing people from Hong Kong to apply to register for the new British National (Overseas) (BNO) status instead.

Many Hong Kong residents chose to register for BNO status, either to retain a connection to the UK or simply because this was their only way to obtain a passport at the time. The final deadline to apply for BNO was 1 July 1997, when Hong Kong was officially handed back to China. Hong Kongers who were left stateless on 1 July 1997 due to, for example, not being recognised as Chinese nationals, also automatically received BNO status, even if they had failed to register for BNO status by the deadline, to avoid them becoming stateless.

At the time, British National (Overseas) status did not allow to move to the UK freely; status holders had to comply with UK immigration rules like other third-party nationals. Since the passing of the national security laws, however, the government stated that “The Chinese Government, through its actions, has changed the circumstances that BN(O) status holders find themselves in, and it is right that we should change the entitlements which are attached to BN(O) status.”

Last week, the Home Office laid out the new BN(O) visa route in full. As expected, the Hong Kong BN(O) visa enables BNO status holders ordinarily resident in Hong Kong, and their immediate family members, to settle in the UK to live, work and study.

Under the new route, a five-year visa will cost £250 per person. Applicants will also be able to apply for a 30-month visa which will cost £180 per person. In addition, applicants will have to pay the immigration health surcharge, and prove that they can support themselves and their family for six months from the date of planned entry.

There is no quota on numbers - anyone who is a BN(O) status holder and normally resides in Hong Kong can apply for the Hong Kong BN(O) visa. Applicants do not need a valid BN(O) passport to demonstrate eligibility, and they do not need to request a new passport if it has expired or been lost. They simply need a valid travel document and proof of their BN(O) status. Importantly, however, there are no plans for BN(O) registration to reopen, meaning BN(O) status is not something one can obtain – holders of BN(O) status were fixed when the application system closed on 1 July 1997.

Family members of BN(O) status holders must be living with the status holder in order to be eligible to apply. Examples of family members include a spouse, civil partner or unmarried partner, children under the age of 18, adult children born on or after 1 July 1997 (and their spouse, or child under the age of 18), and other family members (parents, grandparents, brother, sister, son or daughter) in exceptional circumstances where there is a high level of dependency. Family units must apply together, not separately. If family members of BN(O) status holders do not apply together with the status holder, they will not be able to join the BN(O) at a later date.

All those eligible will be able to apply for settlement in the UK after five years if they meet the requirements, and British Citizenship 12 months thereafter. The framework is meant to be clear, generous and easy to navigate, considering the sheer amount of BN(O) status holders. As of February 2021, there were approximately 470,000 holders of BN(O) passports in Hong Kong. The Home Office, however, estimates of the number of BNOs actually living in Hong Kong is closer to 3 million with as much as 2.3 million additional eligible dependants, totalling to over 5 million potential applicants.

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